Don’t act on NY Resolutions until you’ve read this!

2011-year-resolution-400x400The temptation will be strong over the next week to join in with others and declare your New Years resolutions for 2013.  An admirable gesture for sure, however the reality is that the majority of people leave their resolutions long behind by March.  So how can you be different? What can turn your good intentions into sustainable long-term behaviours?

The truth is that whatever the new behaviour is (eg. Starting to exercise, stop smoking, flossing your teeth) it’s something that you are currently NOT doing as you would wish …. hence the need for the resolution!  So, whatever it is there are reasons you aren’t doing it.  Unless you know what they are and have strategies to overcome them, you are wasting your time declaring your upcoming change.

The well known phrase fail to plan, plan to fail’ is 100% correct.  Most psychologists view behaviour change as occurring through a series of steps or stages.  We may initially be resistant to change, then we contemplate doing things differently and many people make some quick plans and then launch themselves into whatever the new behaviour is.

STOP.

You rushed it and that’s why so often it doesn’t work.  Successful behaviour change comes about when you think and plan, then think some more, and then do some more planning!

Let me illustrate two quick examples of how you can considerably increase your chances of changing your behaviour.  I’ll use examples of both starting a new behaviour and stopping an existing one.

Starting a new behaviour – Going to the gym

Why do I want to start exercising at the gym?

  1. It will improve my cardiovascular fitness and strength
  2. It will help me to lose weight
  3. it will help my confidence?

So why haven’t I been going to the gym?

  1. I haven’t been prioritising it into my weekly schedule.
  2. When I have the opportunity to go, I do something else, for example when the alarm goes off in the morning, I roll over and go back to sleep.
  3. I think about going to the gym and then I tell myself it’s going to be hard, and I will be sore, and I’ll probably make a fool of myself.

What do I need to do differently to overcome these obstacles?

  1. Prioritising – Get out my diary and make an appointment with myself to go to the gym. Decide whether mornings or evenings will suit me and the family better.
  2. Not seizing the opportunity – go anyway! I know I don’t feel like it, but I know it will feel good once I’m done.  I also need to have my clothes out ready to make it easier. So I’ll lay them out the night before for a morning session. Or I’ll put them in a bag in the back of my car in the morning so I can go straight from work.
  3. Negative self-talk – challenge the helpfulness of what I’ve been saying to myself.  “Yes, it will be physically uncomfortable at first and I might be sore, but long term it will be really good for me to go”.  “I might feel self-conscious, but I’m a long way in front of all the people who stayed home in bed!”  “That’s why I’m going to get a trainer to plan out a program for me initially, so I can learn what to do”.

What resources do I need to change my behaviour?

  1. sandshoes,
  2. gym shorts and a tshirt
  3. a gym membership,
  4. access to a personal trainer to design my initial training program.

When will I start?

I’l ring the gym now and schedule to get a program from a trainer.

How will I know when I’m successful?

I’ll be regularly going to the gym 3 times a week and I’ll notice a difference in my appearance and how my body feels.

What if I relapse and stop going?

  1. I’ll first forgive myself!
  2. I’ll then review why I haven’t been going and make plans to overcome those obstacles.

Behaviour 2 – Stop eating high sugar and high fat desserts every night.

Why do I want to stop eating the desserts?

  1. They are calories I don’t really need.
  2. I’ve just started my gym program and this isn’t helping my efforts.
  3. I don’t feel good after I’ve eaten them.

Why do I currently eat desserts every night?

  1. They are in the freezer!
  2. Habit
  3. My partner eats them with me
  4. It’s what I do when I watch tv to relax.

What do I need to do to overcome these obstacles?

  1. In the freezer – throw them out and don’t buy any more!
  2. Habit– Change the habit, think about something I would rather eat instead like a piece of fruit or some yoghurt and have those foods available.  Remember you don’t need to totally abstain!  Perhaps you might have your treat dessert twice a week.  Plan which nights that will be and have that then.  Reducing your intake from 7 nights a week to 2 will make a big difference.
  3. My partner eats them too– talk to your partner about your decision to make a change and see if your partner would like to make the change too.  It will be easier if they do, but if they don’t, make the commitment to do this for yourself.
  4. It’s what I do to relax– Remind yourself why you are making this change.  Enjoy the fruit or whatever alternative you go with.

What resources do I need to change my behaviour?

  1. A dessert alternative

When will I start?  

I’ll go grocery shopping this afternoon and buy some fruit alternatives.  When I get home I’ll throw the old desserts out (or put them to the back of the freezer for my two allocated nights).

How will I know when I am successful?

When I have been regularly eating healthy options for my dessert.

What if I relapse and stop going?

  1. I’ll first forgive myself!
  2. I’ll then review why I haven’t been going and make plans to overcome those obstacles.

SO WHERE DO YOU START?

First I’d like you to copy the questions I have listed below and put them into a word Healthprocessing document.  Take the time to go through the questions and answer them for yourself.  Print the answers off and put them somewhere where you’ll see them and start moving towards change.

  1. Why do I want to stop/start                               ?
  2. Why do I currently                          (insert the current barrier here)?
  3. What do I need to do to overcome these obstacles?
  4. What resources do I need to change my behaviour?
  5. When will I start?  
  6. How will I know when I am successful?
  7. What if I relapse and stop going?

Don’t think of the Eiffel Tower!

I am writing this whilst sitting down the back of the room where my son is participating in a music ‘workshop’.  I promise I sat attentively for the first 50 minutes, but I can fortunately multi-task so now am writing whilst listening!  Whether they be musicians, coaches, or teachers I am always interested to hear the language used to instruct and encourage students or athletes.

Within this particular class the instructor is trying to get the students to play the piece smoothly.  Unfortunately his delivery isn’t going to assist the children in achieving that.

Phrases that have been said thus far include:

  • Who made mistakes in that piece?
  • No gaps
  • Don’t come in before one
  • No wrong notes please
  • Who played some strange notes in that piece?
  • If you play a wrong note you have to stand up
  • Not one wrong note please
  • Don’t overlap your notes
  • Don’t make that too long or too short

Language is very powerful in its ability to create a visual image.  By example, “Don’t think about the Eiffel Tower”.  The problem for our brain is that there is considerable effort required to process the word don’t. Particularly when time is of the essence, our brain tends to skip the word don’t and only hears the remainder of the sentence.  So, “Don’t come in before one” becomes “Come in before one”, which is exactly what one young 8 year old has just done 5 times in a row in this workshop.

So what does the instructor need to be doing?  The key is to put the positive image of success into the persons thinking.  “No gaps” and “Play smooth” are the same instructions with two very different resulting images. Just as when speaking to an athlete, “Safe hands” vs “Don’t drop the ball” have the same intention, with two quite different outcomes.  When we hear “No gaps” or “Don’t drop the ball” we need to interpret the meaning and then translate it to the intended action – essentially it is additional work for our cognitive processing – and more often than not we don’t do it.  If you’ve ever been with a 3 year old carrying a glass of water across a room, all it takes is for Mum or Dad to say, ‘Careful, don’t spill it’ and you will soon see the mop coming out to clean it up!

If you want to enhance the instructions that you give, tell the person what they need to do rather than what they need to avoid.  I’ll say that again, if you want to enhance the instructions that you give, tell the person what they need to do rather than what they need to avoid.  Do is so much more effective than don’t.  Listen out for when you use don’t in a sentence and rephrase it so it is very clear what you intend – what is needed rather than what is to be avoided.

  • Catch the ball
  • Come in on one
  • Play smoothly
  • Good articulation
  • Carry with two hands

So back to the piano class.  The instructor is getting some of it right, I’ve just heard. “As smooth as possible”, and “I heard some lovely sounds”.  However poor little miss 8 has just played the starting note early (again), I hope the teacher isn’t surprised.

As Alfred said to young Master Bruce Wayne, “Why do we fall?” To which Bruce replied, “So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”

A recent discussion with friends raised the question as to whether the current generation of children are over protected by their Gen X parents? The criticism being that in protecting children from failure and praising them for every action (deserved or not) they are in fact making them ill-equipped for later in life when the reality of the ‘real world’ kicks in.  Parenting effectively can certainly feel something of a balancing act that we don’t always get right.  There is no doubt that the intentions of most parents are to give their children opportunities to experience life in a positive, rewarding and enriching way, we do need to be careful however that our intentions don’t in fact harm our children in the short and long term.

There are two parenting styles that don’t do our children (or their parents) any favors:
The helicopter parent – hovers on the periphery of their child’s activities and at the slightest hint of disappointment or disapproval being directed their way, the parent swoops in and attempts to rectify the situation. This may include telling the child they were wronged (“the judge is hopeless, you were clearly the best”); manipulating behind the scenes (organizing for the child to get another opportunity when that is outside the scope of the rules or Imagewhat is fair); or giving the child feedback that is positive, yet unwarranted or undeserved.
The lawn mower parent – spends their time smoothing the path of life for the child, pre-empting what may go wrong and fixing it long before the child comes anywhere near it.  Such as speaking up for the child (for example to a teacher), when the child really needs to take that responsibility.  Often the child will be ‘protected’ without even knowing what has happened in the background.

So if these are the approaches in parenting that we need to avoid, what is the preferred way for us to speak to our children?

The way we understand and subsequently explain our world is known as our causal attributions.  It is these attributions that result in an emotional response and drives our subsequent behaviour.  Broadly, the explanations of our behaviour will fall into one of four categories: ability, effort, task difficulty and luck.

Ability is a characteristic that can certainly change, but may do so at a relatively slow pace.    The difficulty of a task will vary according to who we compete with and the situations we are placed in. And luck, even when considered the combination of preparation meeting opportunity, is at times exactly that, luck.

What then of effort?  Well effort is within our control.  We decide the intensity with which we engage with an activity.  We decide whether our effort will be high or low.  And in a world where people frequently struggle when life feels out of control and unpredictable, effort is our best shot at feeling like we are making a difference.

So when offering feedback and encouragement to our children, this distinction is important to remember.  Our children can not on any given day do too much to drastically change their ability, they can however completely control their level of effort.  So with your feedback, encourage and recognize effort over ability.  Certainly it is a great moment when children demonstrate success and mastery within their sport or academic endeavors; however self-esteem is best encouraged and enhanced when effort is acknowledged.

The important point to remember in setting goals, and setting out to achieve, and trialling new things is that with that effort invariably comes some level of disappointment.  Whilst many would react to using the term ‘failure’, the reality is that not achieving our intended goal can bring about some level of disappointment.  And in building our resilience, this is the most important part!  When we fall down, when we ‘fail’ we have an incredible opportunity to reflect on why it didn’t work and what we can do to be more successful next time.  As parents our role is usually not to make it all better and make the hurt go away, but rather to be the soft place to land so that our children can dust themselves off and have another go.  We only learn from our mistakes and if we deprive our children from this opportunity, we are not helping them in the long term.

The evidence is clear that in the long term, a healthy self-esteem facilitates performance.  So encourage your children to give their all, to strive for their personal best and let them make mistakes.  Through their best efforts, this is their best opportunity.

When silver isn’t good enough ……

Image

I have been interested over the previous week to see the media reaction to Australia’s apparent ‘disappointing’ performances thus far at the Olympics. From the 4x100m relay in the swimming, the Opals loss to France in the basketball and through swimmer Emily Seebohm’s tears that she hoped her silver medal hadn’t ‘disappointed’ the country.

The challenge and expectations placed upon our Olympic athletes are enormous.  The reality is that for the approximately 10,500 athletes competing in London there are a total of 906 medals on offer.  The figures determining any individual’s likelihood of success are staggering.  With approximately 6.675 billion people in the world, the odds of being an Olympic athlete are 1:636,000 and the chances of gaining an Olympic gold is 1:22,000,000.

Our Olympic athletes devote years of their lives, often on meager wages (or the generosity of their families) to live the olympic dream.  Whilst we encourage our athletes to live ‘balanced lives’, the reality is that 4+ hours of daily training + rehabilitation commitments such as physiotherapy, massage, doctors, psychologists, dietitians + meetings with coaches and commitments with sponsors leaves very little room for work, family and relaxation.  The notion of the elite athlete having a balanced life is for most a myth.

Australians love their sport.  Of this, there is no doubt.  Our athletes are lauded as heroes in ways that our scientists, academics, and cultural elite can only dream.  In elevating our athletes to such a high pedestal, the fall when it comes can be hard.

Any wonder then that within seconds of finishing their Olympic event, attaining a result that does not meet their expectations and with cameras and most of the world watching, that some of our athletes react in ways that perhaps even they can’t anticipate?

Athletes are encouraged from very early days to focus not on the result but rather their performance in relation to their own standard (their personal best).  We have little to no control over the behaviour of our competitors, however when it comes to our personal effort we can very much control our destiny.  We should remember that for some the disappointment experienced with a lower than expected medal or placing, may be as much about not attaining their PB.

To experience disappointment often elicits a grief response. Grief is tough enough when experienced in the privacy of our own homes, let alone in the public pressure-cooker that is the Olympic stage.  When a young 20-something has spent more than half their life training for a single opportunity, why should we be surprised when they become human on our screens and react with emotion?  Emotions are an integral part of what differentiates us from other species and our experiences (good and bad) provide our opportunity for learning and growth.

The journey to the Olympics is a long road with many potential highs and lows.  The odds of getting there are small and all that do (regardless of their performance outcome) are heroes for their courage and tenacity.

Facing depression

This post was first written on Inshape News in July 2012.

Depression can be experienced in many forms and with varying severity, from mild to severe or psychotic. However, there are a number of strategies that a person can adopt which will assist with their functioning and general well-being.

These are as follows:

1.  Enhance the positive areas of your life. Engaging in activities that you enjoy is a helpful step towards overcoming depression.  Ask yourself, “What have I stopped doing that I used to enjoy?”

Perhaps it is:

  • Reading a book.
  • Catching up with friends for a coffee or meal.
  • Exercising.
  • Going to the park.

To overcome depression, spend some time reflecting on the positive aspects of those activities and remember times when you did them.

Try to increase the number of positive activities and events in your daily routine.

2.  The way you think. One role for our mind is to generate our everyday thoughts. The way we think directly influences our mood and therefore our resulting behaviours. For example, if we think we are lazy, we may feel sad, which may result in us not being physically active. How we interpret our lives can be constructive and helpful or negative and harmful. How we think is an active choice. Negative thinking is an unhelpful habit that we can overcome with practise and persistence.

Just because we think something, doesn’t necessarily make it true. When you feel depressed negative thoughts can weigh on your mind. You may doubt yourself, wonder if you can cope, or feel like it’s all too hard. To overcome this, start by listening to that inner voice. Ask yourself, “What are you saying to yourself?”

Being aware of your negative thinking serves two purposes:

  1. Knowing your internal ‘chatter’ can act as an early warning sign that your thinking is not being helpful.
  2. Knowing your internal ‘chatter’ allows you to take action towards more helpful thinking.

Listen to your self-talk. Ask yourself, “Is it positive? Is it helpful? Would you speak to others the way you are speaking to yourself?”  If the answer is no, then challenge these negative unhelpful thoughts and replace them with something more beneficial. There are various self-help books that can assist you to do this or you may wish to seek guidance from a counselor.

Replace negative thoughts with positive, helpful thinking. Challenge yourself to think differently and create new positive thinking habits.

3.  Make positive choices. Often when we are feeling depressed we turn to food, alcohol, and cigarettes, as well as being inactive or reducing our social contact as a way of coping. Unfortunately these strategies may have negative consequences for us, especially if they are over used, particularly in the long term.

Broadening your decisions and considering the range of options you have may help you to consider other behaviours or actions that will benefit you.

If you’re feeling down perhaps you could go for a walk or if you find yourself seeking solace in the fridge choose fruit or another healthy choice.

Depression is a serious condition affecting a large proportion of the population. It is important that in cases of a depressive disorder — particularly a severe one — that a person seek assistance from an appropriate health practitioner. Psychology offers a number of therapeutic approaches and strategies to assist people in facing depression. It is important that you take steps that will best benefit you. Seeking help and adopting some of the strategies mentioned in this article may be helpful for you.

 

Embracing adversity … the good side to when things go wrong!

Ancient Greek, Epictetus wisely said:

It’s not what happens to you, but how you react that matters

The flip side of the joy of life is that we at times face challenges and hardship.  Whilst we look for the silver linings, we unfortunately also need some days to look into the clouds.  Much of this is unfortunately beyond our control – a factor that for many of us becomes very disconcerting.  However there is an upside to adversity and knowing how to grow and develop beyond these challenges is where we can find the silver lining.

A few things to think about next time you face adversity.

Adversity is a reminder

I don’t meet too many people who tell me that they struggle from not being busy enough!  So when adversity comes along (illness, loss, disappointment) we can be forced to take stock of the things that are important to us: our friends, our family and our health.  Consistently the research tells us that ‘stuff’ (possessions, fame, and money) are not the things that bring us happiness.  When adversity pulls us up we have a chance to stop and reflect on what is important and where our priorities best lie.

Adversity provides guidance

Maybe the time has come to change your path?  Perhaps the challenge that you face is life telling you that you now need to think about doing things differently.  Maybe there is something that you can change.  Change, when it is done well requires knowing what decision to make and careful planning.  Take care to listen to your instinct, it is often a wise place to start.

Adversity makes us stronger

Whilst it may not feel it at the time, the only time we learn anything is when we make mistakes and are open to learning.  Most would prefer to experience success, however it is from our disappointments that we can dust ourselves off, reassess what we were doing (that didn’t work) and adjust for the future.  I have recently had interesting discussions with parents of successful athletes who have hit stumbling blocks when their child has experienced their first ‘failure’ and really not had the strategies to cope with it.  The advantage to not coming first every time, or not getting selected in the team is that it forces you to reconsider and grow.  We learn a great deal from when it doesn’t go the way we plan.  The important questions to ask ourselves are:

  1. Why might this have happened?
  2. What was my contribution?
  3. What did others do?
  4. Was it in or out of my control?
  5. What could I do differently next time?
  6. How am I better for the experience?

In fairness, sometimes depending upon the adversity it may be some time before we are ready to face such questions, however given none of us own a time machine (although I do put it on my wishlist to Santa every year!) all we have to go with is what we can control and how we can move forward.

I’d prefer the good times too, however I know that when adversity strikes at the very least I can learn from the experience and that can only benefit in the future.